Dr Xiaoling Liu GAICD faced a number of challenges growing up in a country that remains largely male-dominated.
The Chinese Australian, who calls this country home, says her grandfather, who was a landowner in China, had been ostracised when the Communist Party came to power in 1949.
At school in China she was marked down as ‘suitable for re-education’ because of her family background, but did not let that define her. Excelling at school, Liu credits one of her teachers with her persistant attitude.
“He called me into his office one day and said to me, ‘Xiaoling, there are many things people can take away from you, but there is one thing they can’t take away, and that’s your performance and your results.’”
At that point, Liu knew she would have to work harder than her classmates if she was to achieve in life. This mantra would later see her move away from her homeland in China to become CEO of Rio Tinto Minerals.
“From an early age I knew I had to become adaptable and resilient. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” she says. “I would say to myself, ‘How can I adapt to this situation or environment? How can I make a contribution?’ This continues throughout my career and even today as I transition into non-executive director roles.”
At school Liu enjoyed chemistry and chose to study extractive metallurgy at Chongqing University, where she once again she excelled in her studies. The university offered her an academic position, followed by an opportunity to further her education in England.
Liu leapt at the opportunity, although she could not speak English. She admits that the move to England came with a few challenges. Aside from the language barrier she also experienced culture shock.
“Before I left for the UK, I began an intensive six-month English language course, but it wasn’t sufficient,” she says. “I continued to study the language in the UK. My professor at the Imperial College told me I needed to immerse myself in the culture.”
This would be another lesson in adaption, says Dr Liu. “I was lucky because this professor took me into his family.”
Liu enjoyed Christmas dinners with them for three years and regularly visited their country farmhouse on weekends. “I was exposed to English culture, art and music and this helped improve my language skills,” she says.
With a PhD in extractive metallurgy, she was offered an academic job as a research fellow at London’s City University for two years. In 1988, while attending a conference, she met a contact from Rio Tinto Aluminium (formerly Comalco Research Centre) who recommended Comalco hire her, this time as a research scientist in Australia.
She quickly made up her mind to pursue this opportunity and moved to Melbourne. Thankfully, the move from London to Melbourne was less of a culture shock than her initial move to the UK had been, although some Australian colloquialisms caught her off guard initially.
“I can laugh now, but after someone finished work for the day, they would say ‘See you later Xiaoling’ I thought they were actually coming to see me later,” she adds.
“In London, it was just ‘goodbye’. It’s these subtle differences, like ‘G’day mate’ instead of ‘hello and how are you?’ [that were hard to understand].”
Over the following decade Liu would move into managerial positions within Rio Tinto, most notably her appointment as CEO of Rio Tinto Minerals in the US in 2011.
She describes the job as less operational but more commercially complex than her previous roles. The business supplies more than thirty per cent of the world’s supply of refined borates. Borates have multiple uses in agriculture and industry.
She said the job offered exposure to the full spectrum of a mining business, from geology, mining and refining to logistics, as well as marketing and sales to many sectors and countries.
“This was the attraction in taking the job and moving to the US. Again, another culture to experience. My commercial acumen developed further in this role; it was a great role professionally.”
Liu stayed in the job for three years before returning to Melbourne. She says her husband has been very supportive during her career.
“I often say my career is not just mine. I have created it with my husband. He was happy to move with me. We discussed our respective opportunities right from the start. My family is my number one priority. I tell people to work hard but not at the expense of one’s family.”
Her international experiences have been important but not critical in helping her achieve a leadership position. She believes that if she had stayed in China she would still be in a leadership role.
Working across the globe has made her more aware of different cultural factors and she believes that having global experience has enhanced her boardroom decision making.
Liu is a currently a board member of Newcrest Mining and Iluka Resources and last year she joined the board of Melbourne Business School.
The issue of gender has never impacted her. “From when I was a little girl, I was never conscious of my gender and its impact,” she says.
“If I thought my gender was a major issue, I’d probably have chosen a different career path.”
She said her focus has always been on the issues at hand and how to resolve them, although she questions whether some comments that have been made during her career would have been made to a man.
“When this does arise, I quickly get over the gender issue and focus on the job,” she says.
Liu believes ethnicity has been more of a barrier than gender. “I feel my ethnicity, rather than my being female, has been more of a barrier, partly because it’s more obvious and my accent at times can be hard to understand.”
Rather than blame others, she adds, “it is my responsibility. If people cannot understand me, then I can’t lead effectively. I worked hard on this,” she says.
“In the early days, if a work colleague didn’t understand me, I’d tell them to say to me, ‘Please stop Xiaoling, we can’t understand you.’ It’s very important we understand each other.”
Liu says the discussion of diversity in boardrooms must continue. “Once you bring different perspectives together you have a higher probability of making better decisions for the company and for the community.”
Her role as non-executive director at Melbourne Business School is a way of giving back.
“I want to contribute to a not-for-profit board. I believe higher education, innovation and technology are important for the country and the next generation. I’m very pleased to have been invited to join the board,” she says.
From her time as a young girl in rural China, Liu has come a long way. Looking to the future, she believes she has more to contribute to society.
“I want to be a role model for women, particularly those with an ethnic background,” she says.
“You can reach your dreams and career goals. Focus on developing your skill set and on the right thing for the company and the community, then the results will come.”